Halo 4 is both an end and a beginning. It is certainly the last Halo game released on the venerable Xbox 360, but instead of providing a bookend to the console’s life, it serves as a reminder of what big budget gaming can be, and as a glimpse into what the next generation of consoles can bring.
Master Chief and Cortana return, but this is a different relationship than the snarky, yet amicable relationship that we’ve seen in prior Halo games. Instead, what we get here is a relationship befitting two longtime companions. There’s a history between Cortana and the Chief, and that history injects some much-needed humanity into the narrative. Sure, there is the typical “race to stop the villain” plot mechanic that the Halo series has always employed, but there are also personal stakes that, while smaller in scale than saving the world, feel much bigger than the main plot. The events of Halo 4 will reshape the way you view the Halo universe, and the future hinted at by the opening and closing scenes is electrifying to think about.
Don’t think though that Halo 4 is mere set up. There is a self-contained story here, devoid of any nasty cliffhangers or obvious table-setting for a sequel. The world on which the majority of the campaign is set has its own history and purpose, and even if we never return to Requiem, it’s more than just the MacGuffin which sends the Chief on his journey. The conflict on Requiem is worthy of a game or novelization on its own, even before the Chief’s arrival. It’s disappointing, then, that so much of this wonderful lore is locked away behind an obtuse collectible system, with Terminals hidden away in the tiniest of nooks and crannies that unlock a video that needs to be viewed on the Halo Waypoint website, as opposed to right there in the game. It’s unfathomable that a group as talented and experienced as 343i could flub this aspect of their game so badly, but it’s a disservice to the world and characters, as well as the writers and storytellers responsible. Still, what is here is done so masterfully and with such self-assuredness that it is by far the best storytelling this series has ever done.
Halo 4′s story is buoyed by what is technically the most astounding game of this generation. Halo 4 looks like it belongs on the next generation of consoles, with its beautiful particle effects and breathtaking lighting. The texture work is immaculate and the entire package somehow manages to run at a constant 30 frames per second without fail. The game is a testament to the ability of the team assembled by Microsoft, and should serve as the de-facto standard by which every game is judged until the next generation of consoles starts.
The audio is just as good, with emotive voice acting and a score that does well to highlight the alien nature of the experience. Soft synths bubble in the background as you explore, giving an air of mystery that the Halo series has not had since the original. Some of the jazzier elements from ODST’s score have been included as well, and much of the bombast of past games in the series has been replaced by a more somber, thoughtful score. Sure, it has its moments of adrenaline-inducing verve that will no doubt invigorate players, but on the whole it’s more varied and interesting than the score in past Halo games, while still remaining as well-executed.
I mentioned before that Halo 4 offers the same classic gameplay that veterans come to expect, but that’s only partially true. Indeed, the game eases you back into control of Master Chief at the outset, putting you into battles with the Covenant in lush, open spaces that instantly feel familiar. However, you quickly learn that the Covenant aren’t the only enemies to deal with.
The Prometheans are an opponent unlike anything played against in the Halo universe. For the first time, there’s an unpredictability of movement by a Halo enemy, and this unpredictability will cause you to suffer at first. The small, cougar looking enemies can overwhelm you quickly with their speed and aggression, while the Knights will often teleport out of danger, rendering things like grenades useless. Additionally they have the ability to regenerate thanks to the small, flying cohorts that flutter through the battlefield, causing havoc. The Prometheans are genuinely fun to fight, and stressful in a way the Covenant aren’t. While the depth of the Covenant AI still outpaces the mechanical single-mindedness of the Prometheans, their ability to shift and change the battlefield make them a formidable opponent.
Of course, with the introduction of new enemies comes new weapons, and the Promethean weapons do not disappoint. They look unlike anything else in the universe, an almost living collection of disparate parts held together by gravity and firing in ways that feel alien. The Suppressor wound up being my favorite. It’s a close-quarters nightmare that tears opponents to shreds and forces you to get up close and personal in order to do maximum damage. It rips through the Knights in ways that other weapons can’t, but comes with the added risk of being so close and subject to the Knights’ ability to simply teleport behind you and shoot you from behind.
If there are disappointments present in Halo 4′s gameplay, they would have to be in the AI and relative close-quarters of most of the battles. Squad AI in particular is pathetic, useless, and completely passive. Operating a Warthog with AI controlled squad-mates is a catch-22, because no matter what you choose (driving or shooting) the AI will put you in a bad situation with its clumsiness. However, this doesn’t come up much because battles in Halo 4 are surprisingly small-scale, with a few notable exceptions. Typically, there are a handful of vehicles involved in most of the bigger battles in Halo games, but Halo 4 limits vehicles to a few choice segments, which wind up being the most interesting parts of the 8-hour campaign. That’s not to say the rest of the game is bad, but there are no Promethean vehicles at all, which means that most of the encounters with them are limited to ground fighting almost exclusively.
Of course, it would not be a Halo game without a full multiplayer component, and Halo 4 is no different. Locked away on a second disk that requires a mandatory installation, Halo 4s multiplayer is varied and fun. Wargames is the typical competitive multiplayer that gamers have grown accustomed to, with a touch of Call of Duty-esque XP and progression. Halo has traditionally eschewed these types of progression systems in favor of an even battlefield that is more focused on map control so it will be interesting to see how the Halo faithful react, but it was probably time for a change. Personally, I prefer the balance of a level playing field in every match, but matchmaking seemed fair (at least at this early stage), and I never felt overmatched in terms of equipment. Leveling happens quickly early on, which gives that much-needed incentive to players to continue playing.
Unfortunately, the beloved Firefight mode did not make the jump to the new development team, but it has been replaced by two modes which 343i hopes will augment each other: the co-operative Spartan Ops mode and the asynchronous Flood mode.
Spartan Ops has been the more ballyhooed of the two new multiplayer modes, and with good reason. Each “episode” comes with a 10-minute CG feature that will (apparently) tell a tale akin to a TV series. The gameplay element is meant to be played co-operatively, but is available to a single player. In the first episode at least, the missions in Spartan Ops (of which there were 5 that took about a half-hour each) feel like small, isolated Firefight instances. They give you a wide-open space with a handful of objectives to complete (the last of which is to “kill everything”), along with vehicles, weapons, and anything else you’d need to wreak havoc on your enemies. Spartan Ops feels more like old-school Halo than the campaign, so series veterans looking for a steady dose of the combat sandbox that the series has offered in the past will feel right at home here.
Flood Mode is fun but not particularly compelling. In it a team plays as marines and another team plays as the Flood, with the goal of the marines being to survive and the goal of the Flood being to infect all of the marines by killing them. The matches are fast and furious, but there isn’t much meat there yet. The Flood depicted here aren’t the Flood players are used to, and there isn’t any differentiation between players. In Gears of War 3′s Beast Mode players on the Locust side were given the choice of a variety of Locust types, each with their own unique role and abilities. In Halo 4, all players on the Flood side simply take turns trying to overwhelm the marines, with little variety in approach or execution. It’s genuinely stressful for the marines, but not very interesting as a member of the Flood.
Halo 4 is as complete of an experience as you’ll find this year. The visuals are breathtaking, the audio is impressive, and the gameplay takes most of what you love about Halo and adds some new, interesting elements. The story is the best in the series and perhaps the best story in a shooter this year, and the multiplayer is sure to keep players hooked through the rest of this console cycle. There’s a lot here, and all of it is of uniformly high quality. If this is the last breath of the Xbox 360 before it is washed away by its successor next year, then that breath is not a wheeze, it’s a thunderous roar. While there are still potentially impressive games coming out for the Xbox 360 in the next 6 months, Halo 4 is the last big first party title the system will ever have. It’s a great one to go out on.
A copy of Halo 4 for the Xbox 360 was purchased by the reviewer for the purposes of this review.